"Killing Commendatore" is a 2017 novel by Japanese novelist Haruki Murakami, and like much of Murakami's fiction, it is either magical realism or straight fantasy.
The plot of the book revolves around an unnamed protagonist (because this is a Murakami novel, we can never have the main character named, with no real explanation) who worked as a portrait painter for top corporate executives. His wife has recently left him, and after a tour of Japan by car, he ends up staying at the home of a friend of his from art school, whose grandfather was a famous painter. He engages in teaching some art classes at a local community center, and also meets a neighbor: a rich financier who is semi-retired. Two things happen that push this rather prosaic story into the supernatural. He finds a lost painting in his attic, painted by the owner of his house, his friend's grandfather. The painting is called "Killing Commendatore", and depicts a scene from the opera Don Giovanni. He also finds a nearby pit dug in the ground that has strange music emanating from it, and soon finds that it is occupied by an odd, miniature person who looks like one of the characters in the painting. The presence of this supernatural character, the Commendatore, weaves in and out of the book's other plot: that his rich financier neighbor believes himself to be the biological father of one of the protagonist's art students, a quirky middle school girl.
And that is just the general outline of the book. For those not familiar with Murakami, all of that might sound very far-fetched. For those who are familiar, this might sound like it has already been done.
Murakami books usually exist at three levels. In the first, we have an almost boringly prosaic take on reality. There is going to be a scene where someone makes pasta while listening to jazz. And this book indeed has that scene. There are seeming dead spaces in the book's plot that are filled with descriptions of food and music. Our protagonist is a middle class person who lived in a middle class world. But then, there is a second level: the level where things fall apart. He is disassociated from society. He is an artist, and newly single, living in another man's house. He is having several affairs. In several flashbacks, we learn that his sister died of cancer as a teen. Despite the safe, comfortable world he lives in, we feel his alienness. And then, of course, we have the third layer, which is what puts Murakami apart. There is an empty hole in the ground (much like there was in The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle), inhabited by a magical spirit. The magical spirit, the Idea that takes the form of Commendatore, has an unclear agenda and motivations. How the supernatural parts of the book intersect with the more prosaic parts of the book is not made clear. Whether mixing these two elements is warranted, whether it makes artistic sense, is up for the reader to decide. Obviously, Murakami is not for everyone.
But here is where it works so perfectly: Murakami can describe these normal experiences so well, it is a gateway into the rest of the story. Have you ever had a time where you were staying in someone's guest bedroom, without outside contact, and only had a big pile of National Geographics to entertain you? Of course you have, it is a universal experience. At one point in the story, one of the characters is trapped in such a situation, and it seems so incredibly familiar, despite the very different circumstances that surround it, which are somewhere between sinister and supernatural. Of novelists, I don't know anyone who can unite the everyday with the surreal the way Murakami can.
The problem for me is that some threads of the story are never explained or resolved, especially when they seem topically important. One of the largest is the artist grandfather, an old man who in the past, had lived in Austria during the Anschluss and had joined an anti-nazi cell, despite Japan and Germany's alliance. The painting, "Killing Commendatore", probably depicts an assassination attempt he was involved in, in coded imagery. His younger brother also suffering during the war, killing himself after being an unwilling participant in The Rape of Nanjing. These very important, and very sensitive topics, are brought up, are even seemingly made into the core of the story---but are never explained, despite them being of such important to the story, and also to the audience. Is this book a political statement? A statement about the need for creativity and art? A book about the general dissatisfaction in "normal life"? A text about the supernatural? A book about gender roles? Much as with 1Q84, I saw all these things, but couldn't figure out the overall thematic connection.
A large part of that is probably that I am in the United States, while Murakami, for all his Western appeal, is not. The things that have been on our mind for the past few years in the United States have probably changed what we are looking for in fiction, and for all of Murakami's insight and skill, his work might not address them.